Can Online Learning Ever Beat the Real Thing?

An engineering professor at Oakland University has a surprising answer.

 

To most, the question of whether online learning can beat the real thing probably sounds rhetorical: Of course — one assumes, a real teacher in a real classroom must always be better than learning through a screen. The case against online learning has been made in a series of strongly worded critiques of “massive open online courses” (MOOCs), however in a recent article in Nautilus, Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University, has made a strong case to the contrary. Oakley describes a variety of “terrific pedagogical advantages” that can be applied in online learning environments that are difficult or impossible to apply in a real-life environment. 


Oakley explores how skillfully recorded films can engage students by using techniques of visual trickery to enable a teacher to become a part of the material being taught in an immersive audio-visual experience: “One of the tricks used by many of the past greats in science has been to imagine themselves transported into what they’re trying [to] understand. [Albert] Einstein famously imagined himself chasing a beam of light to help him formulate theories of relativity. Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock imagined herself in the realm of the 'jumping genes' she became famous for discovering. We can help our students to develop the same sort of intuition as these Nobel Prize winners by bringing objects to life in video in a way that’s virtually impossible to do in a classroom. We can walk into the mitochondria of a cell, or the ionic interaction that sparks an aurora, or the spiralling epiphany of Euler’s equation.”

We can help our students to develop the same sort of intuition as these Nobel Prize winners by bringing objects to life in video in a way that’s virtually impossible to do in a classroom.

Oakley is well-placed to comment on such a topic; she recently taught a class on the psychology of learning that I participated in along with nearly a million other students last year. Oakley argues that by using a green screen and immersing herself in the learning experience, students may experience reduced cognitive load from not having to divide their attention among two or more things at once. But the potential benefits of online learning aren’t limited to capturing students’ attention.

An obvious, but easy-to-underestimate benefit of online learning is that learners can pause, rewind, repeat, and slow down or speed up their virtual teachers, tools that can be particularly useful when dealing with technically challenging topics such as maths and engineering.

Another key benefit of online learning observed by Oakley is the ability to embed low-stakes quiz questions within lesson videos, ensuring that students don’t progress until they have demonstrated to themselves that they have understood what they have learned. As we’ve discussed previously, this form of low-stakes practice testing is one of the single most effective ways of improving retention of information, scoring above every other learning technique except “distributed practice” in a review of controlled trials of learning techniques.  

“[L]earning can’t all be interaction” and when it comes to less-interactive lessons, if done well, online learning has the potential to stand far above traditional “talk-and-chalk” teaching practices of old.

I must admit, I’m biased. The explosion of MOOC’s that has occurred over recent years has allowed me to take courses in my spare time ranging from law to game theory and from public health to science writing. Courses that were all delivered by leaders in their fields, such as Dan Ariely, and provided by institutions including Stanford, Duke University, and Caltech, all of this without spending a penny. Something that would have been difficult to even imagine just a decade ago. Whenever I ran into a problem, I could dip into the course forums and partake in a high-quality debate with dozens of other students who were all tackling the same problems at the same time. With a similar platform to that used by Reddit, the wisdom of the crowd shines through. The best responses amongst hundreds of students are upvoted, providing arguably a far higher level of debate than might occur in your average classroom.

Obviously there are many aspects of real-world teaching that online learning can never replace — namely hands-on interactive teaching, group work and one-to-one interaction — but Oakley makes a powerful case that “learning can’t all be interaction” and when it comes to less-interactive lessons, if done well, online learning has the potential to stand far above traditional “talk-and-chalk” teaching practices of old.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.